A Livingston Parish judge has ordered the restaurant Firehouse BBQ to temporarily close down until a hearing in a lawsuit filed Friday by the Louisiana Department of Health, which seeks to shutter the restaurant over its failure to follow rules requiring masks for employees and customers.
The state filed a motion seeking a temporary restraining order Friday afternoon in the 21st Judicial District Court in Livingston Parish that blocks Firehouse BBQ from remaining open until a hearing on August 18th. Judge Brenda Bedsole Ricks granted the motion, ordering the restaurant to stop operating--something the Health Department had already done through an emergency order that the restaurant ignored.
The lawsuit asks a judge to enforce the emergency order, arguing the restaurant is causing "irreparable harm to the public health" by operating without adhering to rules put in place by Gov. John Bel Edwards to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
Edwards in a statement Friday called the restaurant's actions "extremely reckless and irresponsible" and said his administration has "gone above and beyond" to give the owner the opportunity to comply with the order. He noted the White House Coronavirus Task Force has recommended mandating masks.
"It was my hope that the action today would not be necessary, but we are left with no choice as the owner insists on being non-compliant, thus jeopardizing the safety of the employees and customers," Edwards said.
Calls and messages to the restaurant were not immediately returned Friday.
The Health Department cracked down on the restaurant last weekend after the owner repeatedly refused to comply with state masking rules, despite being given multiple opportunities. The state inspected the restaurant after receiving multiple complaints, and gave the restaurant owner an “easy out” of signing an agreement to comply with the rules, according to the suit, to no avail.
In a Facebook post before getting its food permit pulled, the restaurant said masks are not required for employees or customers, claiming employees had "severe medical reactions" to wearing them.
The restaurant is owned by Eunice Danielle Bunch through God's Table, LLC, who posted a sign to the window of the restaurant calling the mask requirement an "illegal mask mandate." Below that sign was another from the Health Department that read the restaurant is ordered closed.
The lawsuit argues state law gives the Louisiana Department of Health the ability to issue emergency orders such as the one given to Firehouse BBQ if the measures ordered are necessary for controlling infectious diseases and “there exists a serious and imminent danger to the public health.”
Gov. Edwards' administration and the state Fire Marshal, Butch Browning, have been lax in enforcing restrictions on social distancing and masks. Until last month, the state had conducted thousands of visits to businesses but handed out no penalties, until the Fire Marshal cracked down on a handful of bars that put on parties or served people indoors.
While the vast majority of businesses who violate the rules comply after being given the chance, Firehouse BBQ refused, according to the Health Department.
Earlier this week, the restaurant posted to Facebook claiming Edwards said he would send "police to arrest me and the employees." But it later said that claim might have been made "preemptively."
Edwards did indicate more enforcement actions would be coming after Firehouse continued to operate without a food permit, but he did not say he would send law enforcement to the restaurant.
State Rep. Danny McCormick, R-Oil City, filmed a Facebook video with Bunch and accused the governor of "smothering" small businesses. McCormick recently gained notoriety when he posted a video where he took a chainsaw to a surgical mask and compared people who don't wear masks to Jews during the holocaust.
McCormick is among a crop of conservative state representatives who are trying to end the governor's emergency declaration and all the restrictions aimed at limiting the spread of the virus.
The White House Coronavirus Task Force in recent weeks has recommended Louisiana mandate masks, close bars and limit gatherings and indoor dining even further than Edwards has been willing to limit them.
Edwards won a court victory this week in a lawsuit filed by four Jefferson Parish business owners challenging those restrictions. 19th Judicial District Judge Janice Clark ruled that Edwards has the authority to issue restrictions to protect public health, after two days of hearings in which top health officials testified about why the restrictions were necessary.
Editor’s Note: Due to incorrect information in legal documents filed by the Department of Health, a previous version of this story gave the wrong name of the owner of Firehouse BBQ. The owner is Eunice Danielle Bunch.